Valuing the Science of Climate Change

There is a troubling line of thinking popping up in climate change circles—a suspicion that explaining the science of climate change may not be very important. This assertion is attributed to recent studies which have found that people’s opinions about climate change are driven by underlying factors such as value dispositions and worldview rather than by level of scientific knowledge. While this may seem to suggest that translating and explaining climate science is pointless, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

To fully debunk this new assertion, we need to go back to the evolution of climate change messaging. Early efforts relied on a naïve view of science communication. Assuming that people are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, these efforts trotted out scientists to give people “just the facts,” thinking this would automatically lead to greater concern about climate change. As in many other disciplines where this strategy has been tried (see for example Michael Della Carpini’s revelations about political literacy and its imperviousness to factual persuasion), “just the facts” didn’t work very well on climate change.

A new generation of climate change communications research (see Willet Kempton’s work) has complicated this naïve view, demonstrating how underlying cultural ideas shape people’s reception of climate change messages. As social scientists have long known, people aren’t empty vessels but, rather, they process new information by filtering it through heuristics and cultural assumptions. That’s why letting the facts speak for themselves is a bad strategy. The challenge lies in finding the right way to engage with people’s existing cultural assumptions.

A recent study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues raises important questions about how to approach deeply held cultural assumptions. In this study, Kahan and colleagues compare worldviews and scientific literacy as predictors of concern about climate change. They find that high levels of scientific literacy are associated with slightly lower levels of concern with climate change than lower levels science knowledge. In short, having an understanding of basic science (e.g., what an electron is) doesn’t correlate with higher levels of concern about climate change. Instead, the study finds that a person’s worldview is a more powerful predictor of their attitudes toward climate change. Egalitarian communitarians, who see social disparities as the result of differences in wealth and power between groups, are likely to see climate change as posing a greater risk than do hierarchical individualists, whose primary concern lies in not restricting industry or interfering in free markets. Given the primacy of worldview in shaping people’s opinions about climate change, Kahan and his colleagues suggest that “a communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information” is unlikely to work.

Kahan and his colleagues are right that focusing only on transmission of scientific information is a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to conclude that generating understanding of climate science is impossible or pointless.

The deep cultural assumptions that people bring to the issue of climate change make science translation harder, as they can easily derail attempts to explain the science. But with strategic reframing, cognitive obstacles can be overcome. FrameWorks researchers, for example, have been able to demonstrate that explanatory metaphors like Heat-Trapping Blanket and Climate Heart enable the public to move past problematic default assumptions to an accurate understanding of climate science.

But why is science translation important at all? Won’t people fall back on their value dispositions and worldviews when deciding what policies to support? Explaining the science is not the only part of an effective reframing effort, but it is a vital part. In a recent experimental survey, FrameWorks found that including information about the health effects of climate change within a values-based message boosts public support for effective policies and increases concern about climate change and collective efficacy. This information is ineffective on its own—to be valuable, it must be framed with the right value—but including it helps the public understand what is happening and, in turn, helps people identify effective solutions. Similarly, in work we conducted on criminal justice reform, we were able to show how facts alone did little to advance support but framed facts, that is those contextualized by a values proposition, dramatically increased support for progressive policies.

Values matter, but it’s also vital to approach values in the right way. Kahan and his colleagues suggest that “communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values.” In other words, they encourage communicators to avoid challenging people’s assumptions, but rather to try to fit their message to them.

FrameWorks researchers feel that the interpretation of this finding isn’t this simple. Affirming unproductive values like individualism is a self-defeating strategy in the long-term. The only effective solutions to climate change are collective and systemic, so appealing to individualism in an effort to engage people will ultimately backfire. Strategic reframing must adopt a long-term perspective. The goal must be to draw forward productive ways of thinking and background unproductive assumptions while giving the public the cognitive resources necessary to think about climate change in scientifically accurate ways. A comprehensive communication strategy that uses careful explanation, productive values, trusted messengers and that leverages depoliticized contexts to deliver messages takes advantage of the cognitive, sociological and cultural aspects of how people understand and act on social issues. This type of an approach is our best chance at helping people understand climate science and building a durable transformation of social discourse that supports effective solutions.

In the end, it may turn out that Exploratorium Founder Frank Oppenheimer was right when he asserted, “The whole point (of the Exploratorium) is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them. I think a lot of people have given up trying to comprehend things, and when they give up with the physical world, they give up with the social and political world as well. If we give up trying to understand things, I think we’ll all be sunk.”


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